Japanese-born KYOKO IMAZU has been fascinated by fantasies of small animals like cats, rabbits and rodents overthrowing society. Her etchings, artist books and cut-paper installations are equally populated with real animals and legendary creatures from Japanese folklore, as well as fictional rabbits from novels and cartoons. Kyoko received her BFA in Printmaking from RMIT University in Melbourne. In 2013, she was an artist-in-residence at The Art Vault and the Australian Tapestry Workshop and had four solo exhibitions: Feathers and Fur at Odd One Out (Hong Kong), Animalis at Port Jackson Press (Fitzroy, Australia), Adore at Bird's Gallery (Melbourne) and Mammals from Melbourne Museum at the Consulate-General of Japan (Melbourne). Her work is on view in a group show called Tiny Universes at Tooth + Nail Studio Gallery in Adelaide, South Australia until November 22, 2013. Kyoko lives and works in Melbourne, Australia.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Have you always been drawn to animals as subject matter?
Kyoko Imazu: Yes. Images of animals have always given me pleasure and excitement, and I have always loved drawing animals. In fact, I don’t remember any time when I wasn’t drawing animals, even as doodles in textbooks at school or on letters.
My mum loved animals, and I enjoyed showing off my drawings to her. Growing up, we always had pets: dogs, cats, fish, turtles. I watched any and all TV programs about animals. In a way, nothing’s changed in my practice since childhood.
OPP: Etchings of real animals, such as the northern pika and the sugar glider, and legendary creatures from Japanese folklore, including the Nue and the Baku,
populate your work. It's like the real and the fictional live together
in one world. Is it the world of your private imagination or is the
coexistence of real and fictional creatures in your work a metaphor for
something else outside of you?
KI: Nue and Baku are Yōkai from Japanese folklore. Yōkai are creatures/ monsters transformed from animals, as well as formless, natural phenomena like wind and thunder. Some can be household objects, or even live in rooms like kitchens and bathrooms! As a child, I was convinced—and very scared—that there were Yōkai and other creatures lurking behind me or hiding in the dark corners of the house. They were as real as my dogs and cats, on the same level of existence.
My work is a continuation of that memory. I like mixing real and mythical animals together because I love imagining what it was like to live in the world before all animals were named and categorized. There was a time when rhinos were as fantastical as unicorns.
OPP: You made an artist book called I want more rabbits! (2013). But actually, you already have quite a few rabbits! They recur persistently in different styles throughout your work in different media. Sometimes they are realistic, sometimes comical, sometimes combined with other animals. Then there are the rabbits that have parts from different fictional rabbits, like Fiverus Bokko Rabbit (2007), which has the face of Fiver from Watership Down and the ears and tail of Captain Bokko from The Amazing 3, and Rogerous Bugsy Rabbit (2007), which has Roger Rabbit's ears and Bugs Bunny's foot. Could you talk about why rabbits are so significant to you personally and in your work?
first drawing was a rabbit, and my primary school art project was of
rabbits. I probably just enjoyed drawing their long ears and cute, round
tails to start with. But, by drawing them over and over, the image of
rabbit has become almost like a personal emblem. My eyes seek rabbit
forms everywhere, in logos and packaging or in the shape of cloud or a
When I relocated from Japan to Australia, I learned that rabbits are considered to be vermin and an environmental disaster, despite also being domestic pets. In Japan, they are fetishized and show up in traditional arts and crafts, as well as popular culture. I thought this difference between the two countries was striking. I am fascinated by the fact that a tiny, cute animals like rabbits can multiply so fast so that they become a threat to people and the environment. I love imagining a society overthrown by small animals—cats, rats and birds, as well—that we usually don’t find threatening.
OPP: Do you have a favorite fictional rabbit?
KI: Rabbit from Chōjū-giga is my favorite. It's a famous set of four picture scrolls made by monks in Kozan-ji temple in 12th century Kyoto. It's considered the oldest manga in terms of techniques. Chōjū-giga depicts anthropomorphic rabbits, monkeys, frogs, foxes and so on without any words. It was probably a caricature, but I can imagine the monks having a chuckle while drawing them.
OPP: You have used accordion-style cut paper in both installations and very small artist books. Will you pick your favorite artist book and tell us the story since we can't hold it in our own hands?
KI: I like to keep the narratives open and ambiguous so that viewers can make up their own stories, but I imagine a basic tone and theme.
Rabbit Hunt begins by showing people trying to catch rabbits with nets and ferrets. A group of small rabbits attacks a hunter while another hunter with dogs is pointing at the group, seemingly trying to set his dogs on the rabbits. Some rabbits are caught, but the rabbits fight back by turning themselves into a Cerberus-like creature. It ends with a large rabbit roaring against a machine-like structure.
Rabbits and other small, non-threatening animals become symbolic of the
idea of power in numbers, especially when it comes to disempowered
groups of people. Thinking of it that way changes I want more rabbits!
into a rallying cry. Now I’m imagining the rabbits as workers
organizing for their rights. Have you ever thought of your work as
KI: I draw ideas and inspirations from memories and stories. Similarly, I encourage viewers to bring their own memories and associations to my work. They can decide if it's personal or political.
For me, this idea of non-threatening animals becoming huge in numbers comes from my memory of growing up around rice paddies in Japan. There are thousands of tiny green frogs singing throughout the night during the summer that made me unable to sleep. To this day, I have nightmares about my house filled with frogs from floor to ceiling.
KI: I love being able to see small worlds emerging out
of strips of plain paper while I’m cutting. It looks abstract from afar,
like decorative lace, but there is a narrative upon closer inspection.
It becomes quite intimate once it’s in the viewer’s hands.
I also love the physical act of cutting paper with a surgical scalpel. It takes a while to come up with drawings for each scene but once the design is finalized and the cutting starts, it demands concentration. Or else I get blood on my work! It is quite meditative; I can usually forget about everything else when I’m cutting paper.
OPP: You recently spent two months in residence at the Australian Tapestry Workshop
(ATW). You worked on several new artist books there, but also learned
to weave. Will weaving become part of your toolkit? Any plans to make
new work in this medium?
KI: I hope tapestries will become part of my work. The great craftsmanship that’s required to create a tapestry is quite similar to printmaking and bookbinding. I’m intrigued by the weight of the history attached to those media.
I want to create tapestries with my animals and monsters, but tapestry weaving requires years of training. I wouldn’t dare exhibit my tapestries any time soon, but I’ll continue to practice. Weavers at ATW still employ the same technique from 15th century. It is so magical to imagine people now still using the same technique from medieval times in totally different environments for different purposes.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibition I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) closed recently, and she is currently preparing for another solo exhibition titled Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.